A group of top state and federal law enforcement officials met Tuesday in Washington to discuss possible legal intervention into big technology companies amid backlash against the firms over privacy and concerns about anti-competitive policies and bias.
The meeting between the attorneys general from nine states and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announced earlier this month, intended to focus on questions about social media platforms “hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms” – an accusation that has swirled in conservative circles and was singled out on Twitter by President Donald Trump.
But on Tuesday, officials at the meeting in Washington said the hour-long conversation focused more on developing an infrastructure to understand how Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google handle the massive troves of consumer data they’ve amassed, and combat any of its misuse.
“Ninety-nine percent of it dealt with what we attorneys general were unanimous for (and) was within our authority. That was antitrust and privacy issues,” said Jim Hood, the Democratic Mississippi attorney general. “One percent of the conversation, bias was discussed.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – who faces a looming meeting with Trump later this week after The New York Times and others reported that he had secretly suggested recording the President and discussed recruiting Cabinet members to remove Trump from office – was present for the meeting, as was Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim, who heads the Justice Department’s antitrust division, the department said. Rosenstein has emphatically denied the reports.
In a statement after the meeting, the Justice Department said the group, which also included senior deputies from five other state attorneys general offices, discussed “ways the Department and state governments can most effectively safeguard consumers using online digital platforms” against problems of data privacy and “consumer protection,” which includes the question of potential bias, a spokesman said.
Attendees said breaking up the technology companies, an idea that has been promoted by Steve Bannon, a former Trump senior adviser, was not floated in the meeting. Instead, officials discussed how antitrust laws on the books could be applied to regulate the firms, and drew comparisons to landmark cases of the past, including Standard Oil and IBM.
Though Justice Department officials have concerns about potential bias at the firms, an official told CNN earlier this month, no federal investigation is known to have been opened, and attendees at Tuesday’s meeting said any future probes would likely include both state and federal involvement.
“State AGs have grappled with these issues for years,” said Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, a Republican. “Having a federal perspective was welcome. We agreed that at the federal and state level, we are both seeking robust protection of consumers and markets through responsible regulation and disciplined enforcement.”